I wrote a post like this at the end of last year (here), which has unexpectedly (to me, at least) turned out to be one of the more popular posts of the past year. This year, several of the books I read weren’t all that great in themselves, but they’ve spurred me to delve into new topics more deeply.
Once again, I’ve managed only one work-related book in the past year: In Search of Certainty, by Mark Burgess (@markburgess_osl), but this is one book I’ll whole-heartedly recommend. Mark is a proponent of promise theory, which describes a non-deterministic way of approaching and directing complex, dynamic systems. In Certainty, Mark draws on very basic physics and mathematics principles in the early chapters to establish an understanding of the myriad factors that destabilize systems and the countervailing forces that generally keep them going in spite of their inherent fragility. From there, although the primary focus of the book is designing for eventual outcomes in information systems, there’s also an interesting exploration of the psychology and philosophy of being such a designer–of how hard it often is to let go of micromanaging each process or transaction–and of designing human teams along similar lines. I’ve had the pleasure of also getting to know Mark personally in the past year; he’s a man of wide-ranging interests, a novelist and a painter as well as a scientist–and they all show up in the course of the book: economics, psychology, neuroscience, and more. The tone is conversational and a broad humanism underpins everything; the overall effect reminded me quite a bit of my childhood favorite, the BBC series Connections. A wonderful, immersive read.
I’ve been dabbling in home cheesemaking in the last couple of years, so one day my husband ordered for me The Science of Cheese, by Michael Tunick. It’s a very technical book, and not one you really read front to back. But for someone who’s been following recipes blindly, it’s enlightening to understand how each of the major variables (fat content, heat applied, culture type, aging process) contributes to directing a blank commodity like milk into the nearly infinite array of different products that exist in the world.
How many accessories does your head need??
I never liked the 1600s. The fashions in Europe were hideously unflattering, the art overwrought, and they spent way too much of that century killing each other over theology. But in the last year I’ve also come to accept that it was also the century that shaped the national boundaries, institutions and legal frameworks that largely characterize our world today. It saw the advent of capitalism and hand-in-hand with it, truly global imperialism. I bring this up because of the next 2 books…
Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America, by Peter Wood, is a book I picked up on the basis of an interesting Slate article covering slavery in 1600s North America, and how it got relegitimized and codified around race (as opposed to religion) after mostly dying out in Europe during the middle ages. It turned out that the Slate article contained all the most interesting bits, so I’d recommend skipping the book and just reading the article.
Invisible China, by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson is mildly interesting as a travelogue of the ethnic-majority borderlands of China; the authors go slightly beyond the standard backpacker circuit of those areas, though if you’ve traveled in any of those regions, much of it will seem familiar. Unfortunately it falls far short of its intended exploration of China’s approach to constructing a multi-ethnic society. The authors very lightly touch upon the “melting pot” vs “mosaic” debates that were held when the Republic was founded in 1911, but without much explanation. More recent policies regarding minority groups are discussed, and although the authors don’t make any such allusions, there are clear parallels with U.S. history–notably with regard to Native Americans–and contemporary debates around minority rights and the evolution of our national character. There’s a deeper history, however, which Invisible China never touches on: the way that border regions and their native peoples, especially in the western half of what is now China, became formally incorporated into the Chinese state during…the Qing Dynasty in the 1600-1700s. (Interesting related article here.) I’ve now got a number of books in queue about Qing policy with regard to Tibet and Central Asia in particular…timely given that China seems to be returning to that playbook in its current foreign policy.
1491, by Charles Mann is a book I’ve already recommended to a number of friends. It’s an excellent survey of recent discoveries and debates in the field of Pre-Columbian archaeology. I’d read articles here and there on many of the things touched on in the book, but others were completely new to me. Mann is a science journalist who’s been on the Pre-Columbian beat for a long time, and a compelling writer.
As always, I consumed a number of historical novels, most of which simply passed the time. But I have to recommend The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. It’s a retelling of one of my favorite adventure tales of all-time, that of Cabeza de Vaca and his 3 comrades, who were shiprecked in Florida in 1527, and over the course of 8 years, made their way across what is now the southern U.S. to Mexico City. Three of the four were Spaniards, and made formal depositions about their experience to the government of New Spain. The fourth was a Moorish slave, who therefore had no official voice. Yet there are enough hints about his real role in the others’ accounts to support this novel, which is beautifully written and very true to the original sources.
Finally, I closed out the last few days of the year reading Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King, while lounging in a cabana on tropical beach. It’s another tale of shipwreck and privation, perhaps even more harrowing than that of de Vaca and co. In this case, a group of New Englanders foundered off the west coast of Africa in 1815 and spent several months enslaved to various Berber families wandering the Sahara, eventually getting ransomed by a British official residing in a trading outpost in Spanish Morocco. The ship’s captain, formerly a strapping 6-footer, weighed 90 pounds at the time of his ransom. Two of his crew were closer to 40 pounds. The book unites accounts published by the captain, one of his crew members, and the British official, into a well-written non-fiction narrative.
What stands out from your reading this year?